If you’re looking for solutions to lose weight, then you’ve probably heard about caloric deficit. The latter means you feed your body fewer calories than it needs so it can use your body fats as an alternative source of energy. While that may be true, it’s not all you need to know about this weight loss technique.
Caloric deficit affects everyone differently. It has benefits and risks, and more importantly, some people opt for extreme deficiency, which isn’t healthy. Below are facts about caloric deficit and how you can create one safely.
What Is A Caloric Deficit?
A caloric deficit is where you consume fewer calories than what your body uses or burns. Every day, you consume calories, food with energy value needed to boost your body’s activities. Then, there’s what your body expends or burns, which is called calorie expenditure. When your calorie expenditure exceeds your calorie intake, you’re in a caloric deficit.
Your calorie expenditure has three components. They include:
- Resting energy expenditure
- Thermic effect of food
- Activity energy expenditure
Resting Energy Expenditure (REE)
REE, also known as the basal metabolic rate(BMR), refers to the calories your body uses at rest for functions that keep you alive. This expenditure accounts for about 50-70% of your calorie intake as bodily functions such as breathing and blood circulation happen 24/7. The percentage isn’t always accurate since the BMR is different for everyone based on age, sex, gender, weight, and body composition.
Thermic Effect Of Food
Next up is thermal expenditure, which refers to the energy your body expends in activities such as food metabolism, digestion, and absorption. It only accounts for between 5 – 10% of your calorie needs.
Activity Energy Expenditure
Lastly, activity energy expenditure is burned during exercise and non-exercise-related activities. They can be sports or household chores. It accounts for the remaining 25 – 40% of your energy usage. In short, whatever else your body does.
To calculate caloric deficit, you first have to calculate your present calorie needs or maintenance calories; then, you can reduce that amount to obtain a calorie deficit. Below are three methods you can use to calculate caloric deficit.
1. Weight Maintenance Calculations
You can use this formula to determine how many calories you need to maintain your current weight. That calls for calorie counting. You need to multiply your current weight by 15 to give you a rough estimate of the number of calories per pound of bodyweight required to maintain your current weight (if you’re moderately active).
Moderately active means you spend about 30 minutes doing physical activity such as walking, gardening, or using the stairs. The formula for this calculation is;
Current weight × 15 = total maintenance calories
It is important to note that this formula is meant for moderately active people.
2. Calorie Calculators And Tracking Apps
You can opt for calorie calculators online like the Body Weight Planner from the National Institute of Health. The planner estimates your calorie needs based on physical activity levels, sex, age, weight, and height.
Weight tracking apps are also available online. They’re more precise as you track your daily calorie intake and weight for a specified period, after which they’ll give you your medium-maintenance calories.
For those of you using these tracking apps, you need to track your results daily at the same time, using the same scale, and wearing the same clothes. That’s how you’ll get accurate results.
3. Harris-Benedict Equation
The formula used often by professionals is the Harris-Benedict Equation. You begin by calculating your BMR, then multiply it by an activity factor based on your activity levels. That should give you your daily calorie needs. Follow either of these formulas below.
Adult male – 66 + (6.3 x body weight in lb) + (12.9 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years) = BMR
Adult female – 655 + (4.3 x weight in lb) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years) = BMR
Once you acquire your BMR, use it in the following equation (based on your activity levels).
Sedentary meaning little or no exercise = BMR x 1.2
Minimally active – one to three days per week of exercise or activity = BMR x 1.375
Moderately active – three to five days per week of moderate activity or sports = BMR x 1.55
Very active – six to seven days per week of strenuous exercise = BMR x 1.725
Extremely active – athletes who train even twice per day = BMR x 1.9
In case none of these calculations get you the accurate results you’re looking for, you can consult with your doctor or nutritionist for better results.
Now, if you’re on a caloric deficit to lose weight, here’s how you can calculate yours. Take your maintenance calories from the above formulas and reduce your calories by 500 to 1000. In general, if you cut 500 to 1,000 calories a day from your typical diet, you could lose about one pound (0.5 kilograms) a week (8).
To create a caloric deficit you have to ensure you expend or burn more calories than consumed. To do so, here are two ways:
- Consume fewer calories on a regular basis
- Increase your daily physical activity through exercise
It is tremendous to combine both if you want better and long-term results.
Dieting takes the first place since it’s way easier to cut back on 500 calories than it is to burn it off. Dieting doesn’t mean that you automatically eat less; it means you eat more strategically. For example, you may need to swap out your favorite Latte for a cup of black coffee. It’s still coffee, but black coffee has fewer calories than Latte (18).
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020, a healthful eating pattern with fewer calories should include:
- Plenty of dark green vegetables and whole fruits. Greens are very high in fiber; hence they will keep you feeling fuller for longer.
- Whole grains
- Proteins – consume plenty of proteins such as poultry, eggs, meat, soy products, seafood, and legumes. They boost metabolism, build muscle, and keep your body full for longer (17).
- Fat-free or low-fat dairies such as yogurt, skimmed milk, and fortified soy beverages.
- Healthful oils, such as olive oil, canola oil, or coconut oil.
Ensure you stay away from sugary drinks and trans fats as much as you can.
The 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans also offer the 85/15 rule as guidance, where 85% of the calories consumed should be from nutrient-dense sources, and 15% can come from non-calorie-dense sources like those higher in saturated fat and added sugars.
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Tips For Eating Fewer Calories
- Eliminate drinks high in calories, such as soft drinks and specialty coffee, and replace them with low-calorie beverages like sparkling water.
- Avoid alcoholic beverages.
- Limit processed foods as they contain higher levels of sugar, salt, and fat. You should be careful with desserts, breakfast, cereals, fast food, and other high-calorie foods.
- Prepare home-cooked meals as compared to ordering. It gives you more control over what you add to your plate, the portions, and calories. The diet quality is better and rich in fruits and vegetables and lower fats.
In summary, you can easily play with calories in your diet to ensure you consume the needed amounts of calories needed by the body without straining. A good example is this 1200 calorie diet menu; it should give you an idea of planning your meals.
Your next best way to create a caloric deficit is through exercise. Start with increasing your physical activity levels to incorporate more workouts. Meaning, indulge in HIIT workouts, new exercise routines than the ones you have, and more muscle strengthening exercises.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the Department of Health and Human Services recommend that adults do 150 – 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 -150 minutes of high-intensity exercise weekly.
Moderate-intensity exercises include brisk walks, biking, hiking, or taking the stairs. High-intensity exercises include jogging, running, cardio, and circuit training. Exercise such as aerobics, compound exercises, and muscle-strengthening activities are also encouraged to help the body prioritize loss of body fat rather than muscle mass (10).
Remember to switch up your exercises often, which can help reinvigorate your fitness routine, hence helping you burn more calories. You can include other workout routines such as yoga, dance, or using the gym.
A Combination Of Both
Caloric deficit to lose one pound with exercise alone may take longer than combining diet and exercise. Weight loss resulting from an exercise intervention tends to be lower than predicted (19). But, exercise and balanced diets can result in less fat and more lean mass (11).
Therefore, work up a way to incorporate both ways to create a calorie deficit. Meaning, swap your favorite cardio with HIIT. High-intensity interval training can burn more calories and fat, so you’re not overutilizing your maintenance calories since the workout will also be shorter than other activities.
As mentioned before, there should be any drastic changes in your body or bodily functions. You shouldn’t feel tired or hungry, but instead, feel energetic enough to burn through your total daily energy expenditure. If you’re often tired, hungry, or experience other symptoms, you may be in an extreme caloric deficit.
You can use a calorie deficit to lose one pound every week. However, some of you may be looking for faster results. Therefore you decide to follow diets for rapid loss, such as fad diets and very low caloric deficit. These can be very dangerous and may lead to adverse effects.
These negative effects arise from ingesting too few calories that carry certain risks such as:
- Nutrients deficiencies
- Brain deprived of energy
- Increased risk of developing gallstones
- Decreased metabolism
If you experience fatigue, diarrhea, constipation, insomnia, getting sick frequently, or negative mood changes, you should adjust your calorie intake to include more calories. Taking way fewer calories than you need will impede your weight loss journey and be counterproductive to your goal.
That said, reading the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, you will note that the body needs about 1600 to 3000 calories as your maintenance calories. Therefore, for a caloric deficit, don’t go beyond 1000 calories a day.
Yes. Theoretically, caloric deficit and muscle gain may seem odd because your body needs many calories to support your body to allow your body to build muscle. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t do that while in a caloric deficit; you’ll have to be strategic about how you go about it.
To do that, follow these three crucial principles:
- Consume a diet high in protein – this is necessary to build muscle, especially when in a caloric deficit (14).
- Do resistance or muscle strengthening exercises but ensure you intake enough carbs to provide the energy needed.
- Keep your caloric deficit in a safe range to avoid your body breaking down your muscles to get the energy it needs.
High protein intake is essential to increase lean mass. Also, intake sufficient carbohydrates before your weight training exercises because that will provide the energy we need for muscle breakdown and muscle synthesis, leading to the growth of muscles.
During exercise, you’ll be stressing your muscles, and the muscle fibers will be damaged. But after the training, the body repairs these damaged muscle fibers through a cellular process called muscle protein synthesis.
The muscle fibers form new protein strands called myofibrils, increasing the thickness and number of our muscles, which is called hypertrophy. Muscle growth occurs whenever the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown.
So, for your body to grow muscle while in a caloric deficit, there has to be enough energy to build the muscle after your resistance training. That’s why you have to consume enough carbs to enhance your performance and increase your strength.
Maintaining a safe caloric deficit is basic science and without enough calories from proteins, your body will get its energy from muscle protein and breaks it down for energy, a process called gluconeogenesis. Your muscles will then not be able to grow.
Going through the article, you’re convinced that your body will lose weight in a caloric deficit. However, it may not work, at least not all the time. Sometimes, your body gets into a weight plateau where nothing is changing, and you wonder if there’s something wrong.
Well, there are four common reasons why a caloric deficit may not work.
Overestimating Your Burned Calories
Sometimes you rely on data from your gym equipment or heart rate monitors and other faulty equipment. They give you hope and often get you overestimating just how many calories you’re burning. When you check the accurate results, you’re left questioning if caloric deficit is even beneficial.
Some studies show that people can overestimate how much calories they burn without realizing that losing weight can be affected but many more factors than calorie intake (19). Some individuals generally overestimate their energy expenditure even thrice, yet they only use half the amount of calories they consume(16).
Another case is whereby you adopt compensatory behaviors, such as increasing your calorie intake after exercise or resting completely after exercising as a way of compensating the body for its hard work; impeding weight loss.
Underestimating Your Calorie Intake
Caloric deficit diets require you to measure your calorie intake to ensure that you’re following the program.
It’s not unlikely that you fail to measure your calories and end up with a caloric surplus or simply your maintenance calories. Meaning your body won’t need to burn fat for energy. You need to be keen to maintain a strict diet that’s a deficit to what you need.
It also applies to different foods such as whole cream milk against skimmed milk or fruit juice against fresh fruits.
People struggling with eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia nervosa, or orthorexia, may find it hard to track your feeding patterns continually. In turn, you revert to old ways of not eating or overeating. Moreover, calorie counting is a tedious task and may trigger old habits that cause you to abandon your new path.
Before you realize you have gone off course, you have to relearn the proper eating behaviors. You most probably won’t see the benefits of a caloric deficit. What’s more, some studies show that calorie restriction can also lead to stress, even for those without eating disorders. Make sure to talk with a doctor or a dietitian first if you are struggling with an eating disorder.
Lastly, your lifestyle can affect the process. Your caloric deficit weight loss journey requires you to be consistent and maintain long-term lifestyle changes that keep you away from high-fat foods, exercising regularly, and restricting your calorie intake. Without that, you wouldn’t see its effects.
A caloric deficit is among the best methods you can use for weight loss. However, without the correct facts, you may not experience its benefits. It requires a moderate reduction of your maintenance calories to keep you energized for the day, but with fewer calories which leaves your body seeking energy from your body fats.
Note that while it’s a good strategy, our biological composition is different, so the results will be different for everyone. While others lose fat faster, others may take much longer to get the same results.
Apart from following a proper diet, physical exercise is also essential for your body and health.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- 1200-diet calorie menu (nd., nhlbi.nih.gov)
- 2015-2020 health guidelines (2015, health.gov)
- 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans (pdf)
- Body Weight Planner (nd., niddk.nih.gov)
- Caloric Deficit for weight loss (2020, medicalnewstoday.com)
- Calories counting (2020, health.harvard.edu)
- Compensatory behavioral adaptation (2013, ncbi.nih.gov)
- Counting calories; get back to weight-loss basics (2020, mayoclinic.org)
- Diet for rapid weight loss (2020, medlineplus.gov)
- Effects of resistance training without and without caloric restriction (2015, ncbi.nih.gov)
- Exercise Preserves Lean Mass and Performance during Severe Energy Deficit (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Harris-Benedict Equation (2000, med.cornell.edu)
- Impact of long-term lifestyle changes on weight loss (2014, ncbi.nih.gov)
- Increased dietary protein to prevent obesity (2014, ncbi.nih.gov)
- NASA and HHS Discuss the Importance of Staying Well, in Space and on Earth (2020, health.gov)
- Normal weight men and women overestimate exercise energy expenditure (2010, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Protein intake and energy balance (2008, ncbi.nih.gov)
- Tea catechin and caffeine activate brown adipose tissue (2017, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Why do individuals not lose more from an exercise intervention (2012, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)